Church angles matter, in Prince George's County

The state of Maryland is bluer than blue, when it comes to politics, so it's no surprise that supporters of same-sex marriage are expecting a rare victory at the ballot-box on Nov. 6. It will be a stunning upset if cultural conservatives carry the day on this hot-button issue in such a liberal state.

However, there is one twist in this story that simply cannot be ignored and that is the power of culturally conservative African-American Christians in this state, especially in highly symbolic Prince George's County -- one of America's most influential regions, in terms of black political and social power. This is particularly true when it comes to the county's many black Protestant megachurches. In these pews, it is perfectly normal to find legions of enthusiastic Barack Obama supporters who consider themselves political progressives, yet they also plan to vote against changing the definition of marriage.

This brings us to the interesting case of Angela McCaskill, the Gallaudet University administrator who was suspended from her job after a gay newspaper published the fact that she had signed a petition to hold a referendum on Maryland's same-sex marriage law.

The story has generated a lot of press, especially now that opponents of same-sex marriage are citing her case as an example of what could happen in the future to traditional religious believers in the public square. Meanwhile, many supporters of same-sex marriage -- especially African-American liberals -- have spoken out in her defense, saying that she had the right to sign the petition and keep her job.

It also helps to know that Gallaudet is a private institution, not a state school. Thus, the university has the right, as a voluntary association, to make same-sex marriage one of the school's defining doctrines, so to speak. Its leaders simply have to state this clearly and publicly, so that students, donors, faculty, etc., know this fact in advance.

Note to journalists covering this story: In other words, was the school's opposition to traditional Christian teachings on this matter articulated to McCaskill and others as a condition of their employment? That would be a good question to ask. On the other side, the leaders of private conservative schools are required to articulate the doctrines that they intend to enforce, in lifestyle covenants, for those who voluntarily study, teach and work there.

So, is support for same-sex marriage part of a written-and-signed Gallaudet lifestyle and doctrinal covenant? Did McCaskill voluntarily sign away her free-speech rights on this issue? This question will come up in court, if this case ends up in court.

Anyway, The Baltimore Sun ran an update on this story the other day that, in my opinion, left a crucial fact out of the lede.

Read this and see what you think. What is missing, if one wants to understand the Price George's County context?

The Gallaudet University diversity officer who was suspended from her job after signing a petition to put Maryland's same-sex marriage law to referendum said she wants her post back and is owed compensation for the emotional toll caused by the firestorm.

"This has been a tremendously horrific time for myself and my family," Angela McCaskill said at a news conference ... outside the Maryland State House. "The university has allowed this issue to escalate out of control. They have attempted to intimidate me. They have tarnished my reputation."

McCaskill, who is deaf and spoke via an interpreter, said she signed the petition because she is "pro-democracy." She was joined by members of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus -- including some who voted in favor of the same-sex marriage measure and some who opposed it.

What is missing from the lede?

I think it is missing two crucial words -- "at church."

The Sun does get this fact into print in a background paragraph a few lines later, which is good. But anyone who knows Maryland politics knows that the church angle -- the freedom to proclaim religious belief outside the pews -- is the key to this whole story, at least for half of the people involved in it. Among African-Americans, the church angle is especially important.

Nearly 200,000 Marylanders signed the petition pushed by opponents of same-sex marriage, who hope to defeat the law at the ballot box Nov. 6. McCaskill said she signed it after listening to a sermon in her Prince George's County church that focused on the importance of marriage. ...

McCaskill, the first deaf black woman to receive a doctorate from Gallaudet, was suspended with pay last week from her post. At the time, the university president issued a statement saying he wanted to consider whether it was appropriate for an officer in charge of cultivating diversity to sign the petition. McCaskill said the university acted after a fellow faculty member lodged a complaint about her decision to sign.

So, how did The Washington Post handle this development in the story? Here's that newspaper's lede:

Gallaudet University’s embattled chief diversity officer said she wasn’t taking an anti-gay stance when she signed a petition advocating for Maryland’s same-sex marriage law to be put to a vote. Instead, Angela McCaskill says she was joining 200,000 others in standing up for the rights of voters to make decisions at the ballot box.

In other words, "ditto" on the church thing in the lede. Later on, the newspaper did add some additional background:

McCaskill, 54, was the first deaf African American woman to earn a PhD at Gallaudet, a university for the deaf and hard of hearing in the District. She has worked at Gallaudet for more than 24 years and was named top diversity official last year. McCaskill said she rearranged her budget to find money to open a resource center on campus for sexual minorities, hired an openly transgender employee and hosted many events centered around discussing LGBT issues.

This summer, McCaskill and her husband attended Reid Temple AME church and heard a sermon about “different types of marriage,” then signed the petition there, Gordon said. That petition was obtained and made public by the Washington Blade. A faculty member saw McCaskill’s name on the petition and confronted her in early October. ...

As the firestorm escalated, McCaskill was told that she should issue an apology -- but refused.

Also, it's interesting to note that she signed the petition at a politically progressive, mainline Protestant church, not in one of the county's massive Pentecostal or evangelical churches. By the way, is she a member of that congregation? You see, this is one of those religious-liberty stories that cannot simply be described in terms of political left and right.

The bottom line: When you're writing about Prince George's County, the African-American church angle goes in the lede -- period. Otherwise, the story is avoiding the key fact in the story.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Needless to say, the goal here is to discuss the journalism issues in these two stories, not McCaskill's action or the contents of her statements -- unless you want to discuss how her actions or statements have been cited in the press.

Please respect our Commenting Policy